Was Pre-Season #1 A Bad Sign For the Michigan State Basketball Team?

Hondo S. Carpenter

By Bob Tripi the unofficial Michigan State Athletics historian.

For the first time in school history, Michigan State starts the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll.

Of course, being No. 1 really only matters at the end of the season. But being the top dog before the first game and winning the NCAA Tournament that season is more of a rarity.

For example, Duke has been a preseason No. 1 eight times since the NCAA Tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in the 1984-85 season and won the title once. North Carolina has been rated No. 1 at the start of the season six times and also won once.

To understand what does No. 1 mean before the season tips off, here’s a look at results going back to 1984-85. There have been 15 schools over the previous 35 years to be tabbed preseason No. 1. Since that time, all 35 teams ranked No. 1 at the start of the year made the tournament.

Their tournament seedings included: 22 as a No. 1, seven as a No. 2; three as a No. 3, and once as a No. 4, No. 5 and No. 8.

Only one of the 35 teams, Kansas in 2005, failed to move on to the round of 32. The No. 3 seed Jayhawks were upset by No. 14 Bucknell in the first round.

The remaining list of 34 teams was surprisingly pared down by seven teams in the second round, or round of 32. Those team included Kansas (2019 and 2010), Duke (2017), Connecticut (2000), Cincinnati (1997), North Carolina (1994) and Syracuse (1988).

Of the original 35 No. 1 teams, 27 made the Sweet 16, also known as the regional semifinal. The good news is only four of the remaining 27 teams did not advance to the Elite 8, also known as the regional final – Indiana (2013), Duke (2002 and 2006) and Georgia Tech (1986).

Once in the Elite 8, 17 of the No. 1 teams won to advance to the Final Four. The teams that missed out were Duke (2011 and 2018), North Carolina (1987 and 2012), Arizona (1998 and 2003).

So nearly half of the 35 teams ranked No. 1 to start the season advanced to the Final Four. Of the 17 remaining teams, 13 played in the national championship game. The four teams that did not play for a title were Kentucky (2015), North Carolina (2008), UNLV (1991) and Duke (1989).

A season-opening loss to Kentucky, a loss to Duke and multiple injury concerns have not dropped MSU from its perch as 2020 national championship favorites. Tom Izzo's team remains around +700 to win the title, narrowly ahead of Kentucky (+750), Duke (+1000) and Kansas (+1000) (odds are from SportsBettingDime.com). Oddsmakers are putting their trust in Cassius Winston, almost every media outlet's pick for preseason player of the year. Strong, savvy guard play is almost essential to a deep March Madness run, and Winston already showed last year that there's no better floor general in the nation.

So how many preseason No. 1 teams have won the NCAA tournament in the last 35 seasons? The answer is six: North Carolina (2009), Florida (2007), Connecticut (2004), Kentucky (1996), Duke (1992) and UNLV (1990).

Michigan State will now have the chance to be the first team in 12 seasons to be a preseason No. 1 and win an NCAA title.

Tripi pic

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